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Cooking with gas - or not

There is nothing more annoying than being wrong about something that makes your life better." Doug Hendrie - The Age/Sydney Morning Herald

Today (Saturday) I read a short piece from Thursday's Age - yes Thursday's. I am always at least a couple of days behind with news reported in newspapers. This wasn't NEWS though - this was an opinion piece. Well that's being a bit unkind, because although it was an opinion it also included some facts. And besides the opinion was very much in line with my own so what's not to like?

The thesis was that we should all get an induction cooker both in order to save the environment and our health.

Now I knew about the environment. Gas is a fossil fuel even though we were somehow persuaded that Natural gas, and LPG gas are somehow better:

"Just imagine the pure joy of whoever invented the phrase “natural gas” and made it sound pure and well worth burning in front of your face when you make dinner." Doug Hendrie

Really it's not. When gas burns it emits nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide and formaldehyde into the atmosphere. Obviously not good for the atmosphere. But what about you? Formaldehyde? Isn't that one of those poisonous sort of chemicals. You preserve dead things in it don't you? And can't you kill yourself with carbon monoxide? People used to kill themselves by putting their head in a gas oven without the flame. Actually though it's apparently the nitrogen dioxide that is the concern health-wise, with figures like 20% more chance of acquiring childhood asthma in a house that cooks with gas.

And yes, that was another cunning PR phrase - 'cooking with gas'. Somehow exciting. Think about all those flambé dishes of the late 20th century where they flamed things like lobster and crêpes Suzette at your table. Exciting. And fun. Today the flaming seems to have drifted back to the kitchen and particularly with wok frying, but often those kitchens are open to the restaurant and the more open it is the more flaming goes on. I can imagine that children especially would find the whole thing to be wonderful entertainment. And charred is a very 'in' word in the foodie world.

Flames however, well burning things, even when more contained in a gas ring and even when there are no really big flames, always emit smoke:

"There is no smoke-free combustion." Josiah Kephart - Environmental Epidemiologist

And that smoke is what causes the asthma and other respiratory diseases. It's an awful thought. The kitchen I remember from my childhood was a very small galley kind of kitchen. Cooking was done on one of those old free-standing cookers. Ours was a bit like this one, though narrower and a bit more rudimentary I think. And the kitchen was really narrow. So my mother - and us but to a lesser extent - would have been exposed to a lot of smoke even if we couldn't see it. That was the grill above the gas hob - right at nose level, and there was no fan.

A simultaneously good and bad thing was that the kitchen was an almost closed unit. There was a back door to the outside - always closed because it's not that warm in England, and a door to the dining room. this meant that the cook was really exposed to the fumes but the rest of the house - less so. These days we virtually all have open kitchens which is at the same time better in that the fumes have a bigger area in which to disperse and so are less concentrated but at the same time, other people than the cook are exposed. And we do have better ventilation these days. If we remember to turn it on.

I too was a fan of gas. I mean all the best cooks cooked on gas. Nobody cooked on electricity. It was far too unresponsive. It took ages to heat up and ages to cool down and no ease of cleaning could make up for that. So when we revamped our Eltham kitchen shortly after we first moved in, I insisted on a gas cooktop, although I had long ago succumbed to the joys of an electric oven. My husband, on the other hand wanted electricity - mainly I think because it was easier to clean. So I let him add a couple of electric hobs. They were very rarely used. In emergency they were a godsend - like the great Victorian gas crisis back in the 1990s when we were all without gas for quite a long time - a month or so. Maybe more. Otherwise though I may have used them very occasionally when I wanted something to cook very slowly for some time. This was indeed easier to manage than on gas. But no - gas was definitely the thing. It was mildly snobbish. It made me feel more like an almost chef.

Then we renovated the kitchen again. And there was another battle over gas and electricity. This time though the battle was over gas versus induction. I was still pushing for gas because - as Doug Hendrie puts it so well:

"Induction cooktops sounded namby-pamby. The embodiment of some insipid, soft-spoken future where everyone wears white onesies and has achieved a tedious level of enlightenment. If induction was a social media site, it’d be LinkedIn – performative in a bloodless, soul-crushing kind of way."

Moreover when it was doing it's heating up quickly thing you needed large amounts of power. Well that's what I understood and that wasn't very environmentally sound was it? We had encountered induction cooktops in France - in a tiny village in the Languedoc in a house owned by Germans - who are, of course, very technologically with it. I didn't really understand what I was doing with it, so was not that impressed.

But I asked around and a few people who had ventured into induction cooktops were enthusiastic, and so I succumbed, although, as you can see I insisted on a gas wok burner. Induction heaters can't quite do woks - well not unless you pay out a heap of money. And here you see the other problem with that beautiful glass top - if your husband drops a saucepan on it, it cracks. Still to be repaired. I am hoping we can just replace the glass rather than having to buy a whole new unit. Although maybe the house insurance will cover it.

So now I have both options but in reverse. All electric really with gas in reserve. Also useful when the electricity goes off as it seems to do increasingly often.

But apart from anything else, it has to be said that the gas section is considerably grubbier than the electric one. And it's not just the hob itself, it's the knob that turns it on and off, rather than the discreet little sliding scale for the induction. And yes there are little splatters of dirt, but really the whole thing is clean - all the time. Just wipe a cloth over when you've finished with the occasional, very occasional more thorough clean with a dedicated kind of cleaning cream.

But how good is it at cooking? Well here I turn to Doug Hendry again:

"It looked like a Scandinavian robot, all blandly black and white. It made an annoying humming sound when I turned it on and then beeped passive aggressively at me when I put a ceramic frypan on. I was prepared to loathe the thing.

And then it began. Instant heat. Rapid boiling water. It promptly made the best frittata of my life, cooking beautifully. Evenly. “Holy shit” I muttered. The exhaust fan whisked away steam without the particulate matter."

I would add to that, that if you want to cook things really slow it is very, very good at doing that.

Yes I have grown to love my induction cooker. Do I have any gripes? Well maybe a couple of tiny ones. If you are cooking with a large pan, the outer edges seem to take a bit longer to heat up than on gas, although I would have thought that had more to do with the cooking pot you are using than the cooktop itself.

Which brings me to the biggest philosophical hurdle. Currently it's a rich man's - well a moderately well off man's toy. Mind you I have noticed that you can now occasionally buy one in Aldi. I can't remember how much the one I saw was, but it was considerably cheaper than the maybe couple of thousands I spent - well maybe only one, maybe not. And Doug Hendry said he had experimented with a cheap one from Ikea. So it's getting within reach and probably most new houses and apartments have them.

The cost doesn't end there though, because you might also have to buy a whole new set of cookpots. You can't use ceramic or aluminium pans here. You have to have stainless steel - and stainless steel that will work on induction. I have a couple of stainless steel sauté pans that mysteriously won't work. Or cast iron. So get out your beautiful old Le Creuset pans. They have a new life. Or else take a trip to Aldi and buy some of their wonderful cooking pans. Seriously their cooking pans are actually great. They cook like a dream and they clean like a dream and they are cheap.

All the same, as always, the most environmentally sound equipment you can buy is for the better off. The poor are currently excluded. And I don't think chefs have succumbed either. Partly that faintly snobbish thing, but also partly as one chef explained, if you have to restock your entire kitchen with new cooktops and new cookpots you need a very large amount of money. And they are only now beginning to recover from COVID losses. Besides they won't be able to show off all those flames.

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